What does it take to sustain a marriage? Is it sex…or is it not sex? The end of June saw the release of two movies that made arguments on either end.
The first part of the anthology Lust Stories 2 on Netflix, argues that good sex is the be-all-end-all of a happy marriage. ‘Rockstar’ granny (played by Neena Gupta) tells her granddaughter (Mrunal Thakur) that if a husband and wife have sexual compatibility, it would keep them together for life; and even if circumstances were to pull them apart, the sex would draw them back to each other. Dadi urges the young woman to do a “test drive” with the potential suitor before saying yes.
On the other hand, in Satyaprem Ki Katha, the man (Kartik Aryan) is seen coming to terms with the reality that his sexually traumatised wife (Kiara Advani) might never be able to consummate the marriage with him. She tells him she’s asexual—it is a big moment for Bollywood—and then a little bit of wooing later, tells him she lied—so close. So, while she likes him and feels attracted to him, she finds herself unable to take things all the way. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains on their honeymoon, he tells her he’s happy just to hold her hand all their lives.
Both are progressive takes given the Indian context, but is one closer to reality than the other?
The circumstances in which the couple end up married in Satyaprem Ki Katha—while problematic—reflect how a lot of marriages happen in India. Aryan’s character is excited and eager to get a taste of marital bliss—so much so that he doesn’t mind the fact that his bride is unhappy.
Indian marriages, more often than not, are a business deal between families involving property and progeny. Sex is seen as important because children need to be born, not because a mutually satisfying sex life is crucial for the health and happiness of both partners. This, combined with the deep-seated sexual shame and lack of education on the subject in our culture, leaves most Indians floundering when it comes to navigating the sexual dimension of adult-, and married-life.
Intimacy coach Pallavi Barnwal concurs. “Marriage has two components: companionship and romance. Companionship is building a life together, raising kids, being there for each other in sickness and health. It is majorly platonic, while romance is erotic. It involves passion, lust, desiring and being desired, vulnerability and anticipation. As a culture we are quite uncomfortable with that side of the human psyche,” she remarks.
Therefore, even in a “modern” arranged marriage set-up, the man and woman may get a chance to discuss their general likes and dislikes, life goals, and more to figure out their compatibility, but sex is still taboo. A meeting of families where the importance of sexual compatibility is openly discussed—as portrayed in Lust Stories 2—may be aspirational.
Speaking of the neuroscience behind sex and bonding, Barnwal says, “When you have sex with a person and it’s pleasurable, it floods the brain with dopamine. And when you orgasm, there’s a spike in oxytocin and vasopressin. These neurochemicals activate the romantic love and attachment system in the brain,” she says. Barnwal also adds that “that’s why you risk falling in love with a person when you have sex with them, and conversely when you fall out of love with that person, but stay with them for other reasons—financial security, social approval, kids—then you detach from them sexually.”
Marriages turn sexless for myriad reasons—the spark may die out after years of sameness and predictability, the individuals may grow apart, there may be abuse or other problems as in Satyaprem Ki Katha. And it is harder to live with it than the movie portrays. “Every day, I get messages from people who are in sexless marriages, and many of them are on the verge of a mental breakdown or even suicide,” Barnwal says.
Which begs the question, could a couple not be reasonably happy if they’re not having sex? Marriage can last for a lifetime without sex, but it may not be healthy, Barnwal says. “I have seen people staying in sexless marriages for 20 years and getting their needs met either through an affair or porn or prostitution. But is that healthy? I will say not every marriage is meant to last, and it may be worth the effort to figure this out on priority. Seek counselling to work on the sex part of marriage. It’s more than important.”
Indumathy Sukanya is a Bengaluru-based writer and artist